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Weekly VC Overview: All European startup funding rounds we tracked this week (July 12-16)

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Source: https://www.eu-startups.com/2021/07/weekly-vc-overview-all-european-startup-funding-rounds-we-tracked-this-week-july-12-16/

Start Ups

Pivot Bio rakes in $430M round D as modified microbes prove their worth in agriculture

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Pivot Bio makes fertilizer — but not directly. Its modified microorganisms are added to soil and they product nitrogen that would otherwise have had to be trucked in and dumped there. This biotech-powered approach can save farmers money and time and ultimately may be easier on the environment — a huge opportunity that investors have plowed $430 million into in the company’s latest funding round.

Nitrogen is among the nutrients crops need to survive and thrive, and it’s only by dumping fertilizer on the soil and mixing it in that farmers can keep growing at today’s rates. But in some ways we’re still doing what our forebears did generations ago.

“Fertilizer changed agriculture — it’s what made so much of the last century possible. But it’s not a perfect way to get nutrients to crops,” said Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio. He pointed out the simple fact that distributing fertilizer over a thousand — let alone ten thousand or more — acres of farmland is an immense mechanical and logistical challenge, involving many people, heavy machinery, and valuable time.

Not to mention the risk that a heavy rain might carry off a lot of the fertilizer before it’s absorbed and used, and the huge contributions of greenhouse gases the fertilizing process produces. (The microbe approach seems to be considerably better for the environment.)

Yet the reason we do this in the first place is essentially to imitate the work of microbes that live in the soil and produce nitrogen naturally. Plants and these microbes have a relationship going back millions of years, but the tiny organisms simply don’t produce enough. Pivot Bio’s insight when it started more than a decade ago was that a few tweaks could supercharge this natural nitrogen cycle.

“We’ve all known microbes were the way to go,” he said. “They’re naturally part of the root system — they were already there. They have this feedback loop, where if they detect fertilizer they don’t make nitrogen, to save energy. The only thing that we’ve done is, the portion of their genome responsible for producing nitrogen is offline, and we’re waking it up.”

Other agriculture-focused biotech companies like Indigo and AgBiome are also looking at modifying and managing the plant’s “microbiome,” which is to say the life that lives in the immediate vicinity of a given plant. A modified microbiome may be resistant to pests, reduce disease, or offer other benefits.

Illustration showing stages of modifying and deploying nitrogen-producing microbes.

Image Credits: Pivot Bio

It’s not so different from yeast, which as many know from experience works as a living rising agent. That microbe has been cultivated to consume sugar and produce a gas, which leads to the air pockets in baked goods. This microbe has been modified a bit more directly to continually consume the sugars put out by plants and put out nitrogen. And they can do it at rates that massively reduce the need for adding solid fertilizer to the soil.

“We’ve taken what is traditionally tons and tons of physical materials, and shrunk that into a powder, like baker’s yeast, that you can fit in your hand,” Temme said (though, to be precise, the product is applied as a liquid). “All of a sudden managing that farm gets a little easier. You free up the time you would have spent sitting in the tractor applying fertilizer to the field; you’ll add our product at the same time you’d be planting your seeds. And you have the confidence that if a rainstorm comes through in the spring, it’s not washing it all away. Globally about half of all fertilizer is washed away… but microbes don’t mind.”

Instead, the microbes just quietly sit in the soil pumping out nitrogen at a rate of up to 40 pounds per acre — a remarkably old-fashioned way to measure it (why not grams per square centimeter?) but perhaps in keeping with agriculture’s occasional anachronistic tendencies. Depending on the crop and environment that may be enough to do without added fertilizers at all, or it might be about half or less.

Whatever the proportion provided by the microbes, it must be tempting to employ them, because Pivot Bio tripled its revenue in 2021. You might wonder why they can be so sure only halfway through the year, but as they are currently only selling to farmers in the northern hemisphere and the product is applied at planting time early in the year, they’re done with sales for the year and can be sure it’s three times what they sold in 2020.

The microbes die off once the crop is harvested, so it’s not a permanent change to the ecosystem. And next year, when farmers come back for more, the organisms may well have been modified further. It’s not quite as simple as turning the nitrogen production on or off in the genome; the enzymatic pathway from sugar to nitrogen can be improved, and the threshold for when the microbes decide to undertake the process rather than rest can be changed as well. The latest iteration, Proven 40, has the yield mentioned above, but further improvements are planned, attracting potential customers on the fence about whether it’s worth the trouble to change tactics.

The potential for recurring revenue and growth (by their current estimate they are currently able to address about a quarter of a $200 billion total market) led to the current monster D round, which was led by DCVC and Temasek. There are about a dozen other investors, for which I refer readers to the press release, which lists them in no doubt a very carefully negotiated order.

Temme says the money will go towards deepening and broadening the platform and growing the relationship with farmers, who seem to be hooked after giving it a shot. Right now the microbes are specific to corn, wheat, and rice, which of course covers a great deal of agriculture, but there are many other corners of the industry that would benefit from a streamlined, enhanced nitrogen cycle. And it’s certainly a powerful validation of the vision Temme and his co-founder Alvin Tamsir had 15 years ago in grad school, he said. Here’s hoping that’s food for thought for those in that position now, wondering if it’s all worth it.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/20/pivot-bio-rakes-in-430m-round-d-as-modified-microbes-prove-their-worth-in-agriculture/

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Start Ups

Qualtrics acquires Seattle marketing software startup Usermind

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Michel Feaster, Usermind CEO. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Experience management software giant Qualtrics has acquired Usermind, a Seattle marketing startup that helps companies acquire, retain, and service customers.

Founded in 2013, Usermind is a leader in the “Journey Orchestration” market, which includes companies that help clients analyze customer relationships and facilitate relevant personalized communication.

Qualtrics is somewhat similar. Businesses use its platform to collect data on how customers, employees and others experience their products and services, taking action based on the results.

Qualtrics went public in January and raised $1.55 billion, more than two years following its $8 billion acquisition to SAP. It will use Usermind to boost its “Qualtrics XM Directory” that helps track customer interactions.

Usermind has about 40 employees, according to LinkedIn.

“We started Usermind because we believe companies should know exactly where customers are in their journey, know when things go wrong, and be able to proactively guide customers to the best experience possible,” Usermind CEO Michel Feaster said in a blog post.

Qualtrics is co-headquartered in Seattle, where it has about 800 of its 3,300 employees, and had revenue of $763 million in 2020.

Feaster noted that “like us, they believe that building legendary software companies outside of Silicon Valley is essential to spread economic opportunity more broadly across the U.S.”

The deal, announced Tuesday, marks the latest chapter in what’s been a bit of a roller coaster for Usermind over the past several years. The company laid off 15 employees (25% of its staff) in March at the outset of the pandemic last year. But then it saw increased demand as companies accelerated their digital adoption. Usermind raised a $14 million round in January to support its growth.

“Monitoring customer satisfaction in every moment, in every channel went from a best practice to a mission-critical capability as businesses innovated digitally to survive,” said Feaster.

The deal is also part of a red-hot market for IPOs, venture capital, and acquisitions across the tech industry, and in Seattle.

Usermind had raised $60 million in total from investors including WestRiver Group, Andreessen Horowitz, Menlo Ventures, Charles River Ventures, and others.

Feaster co-founded the startup eight years ago with Przemek Pardyak, who left the company in 2016 and is now at Google. Feaster previously worked at Apptio and HP Software.

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Source: https://www.geekwire.com/2021/qualtrics-acquires-seattle-marketing-software-startup-usermind/

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Brokrete wants to be the ‘Shopify of construction’, raises $3M seed led by Xploration Capital

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With the pandemic affecting every aspect of life and industry, it’s no surprise that digitization is coming to construction fast. Construction suppliers are increasingly under the same pressure as other sectors to perform at a higher level. We’ve seen the rise of companies like Dozer, Reno Run and Toolbox try to address this, but often the model is closer to a vertical integration rather than something more open. Even with that, it’s still the case that to order concrete or bricks, construction companies have to negotiate each time, with simultaneous record keeping.

This is the argument of Brokrete, which bills itself as the “Shopify of construction.”

The startup has now raised a $3 million seed financing round led by Xploration Capital, which was joined by unnamed new strategic investors and existing investors. The startup graduated from Y Combinator’s winter cohort last year. Other strategic investors include Ronald Richardson, Avlok Kohli (CEO of AngeLlist Ventures) and the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF). The funding will be used to expand in North American and European markets. Brokrete also launched Storefront, an e-commerce platform for suppliers in the construction industry.

Jordan Latourelle, the company’s founder and CEO said: “Construction today is a largely offline, $1.2 trillion market where legacy commerce is the norm. Brokrete’s Storefront product equips suppliers with the tools required to enhance their operations by orders of magnitude. I founded Brokrete after seeing an industry left behind by e-commerce giants. Now we are becoming the operating system for e-commerce in the construction industry, while staying easy and affordable at the same time.”

Brokrete says its platform is code-free, white-labeled, multi-channel and industry-specific to sell and manage orders online. Suppliers get an iOS and Android app for e-commerce to receive offline orders from more “traditional” customers. It then provides order management, payouts, dispatching, logistics and real-time delivery. There are also financial and operational ERP integrations. Brokrete claims to work with 1,000+ contractors and to have a 250+ supplier network.

Latourelle told me: “We’re giving the construction industry an opportunity to use it on a Shopify way, and create their own store. It’s like a branded storefront for suppliers.”

Eugene Timko, managing partner at Xploration Capital said: “Construction is one of the few remaining large industries with mostly undigitized supply chains. Historically the key problem was the lack of real-time access to actual stocks which prevented producers and distributors from going online. Now with Brokrete’s end-to-end solution, these businesses can not only sell through Brokrete’s marketplace but can also enable their own direct online channels. Similar to Shopify, this has allowed many thousands of previously offline businesses to start accepting orders online.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/20/brokrete-wants-to-be-the-shopify-of-construction-raises-3m-seed-led-by-xploration-capital/

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Biosafety startup R-Zero acquires CoWorkr to create an ‘OS for the workplace’

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On Tuesday, R-Zero, a pandemic-era biosafety company, announced the acquisition of CoWorkr — a company that develops room occupancy sensors. The acquisition marks a shift in focus for R-Zero as people return to work, vaccines are rolled out and companies that sprung up in response to the COVID-19 adapt to another phase of the pandemic. 

When R-Zero was founded in April 2020, the company primarily focused on developing hospital-grade UVC disinfection systems, or lights that can neutralize certain types of viruses (more on this later). As companies scrambled for ways to sanitize buildings, the company racked up a total of $58.8 million in funding at a $256.5 million valuation. R-Zero now has about 1,000 private and public sector clients that range from correctional facilities to the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, to the South San Francisco Unified School District. 

CoWorkr was founded in 2014 and had totaled about $200,000 in seed funding, per Crunchbase

With the acquisition of CoWorkr, R-Zero plans to develop an internet of things-style sensor network to manage both personnel and cleaning in the workplace, says R-Zero founder Grant Morgan. The company is moving beyond simply disinfecting air and surfaces, and will focus on managing the flow of people (and the viruses and bacteria) in public spaces. 

“It’s like an OS for the workplace. That’s what we’re building: Tools that help both create and maintain indoor environments with health and productivity at their core,” Morgan tells TechCrunch. 

Elizabeth Redmond and Keenan May, both co-founders of CoWorkr, will remain on in full-time roles, where they will run a corporate real estate initiative, and develop an IoT capacity.  

“We’ve spent a lot of time with our customers and understanding our customers’ initiatives, especially in commercial real estate,” Redmond tells TechCrunch. 

“The majority are moving to a hybrid working scenario and that means you know they really need occupancy information,” she continues. “Our initiative in joining with R-Zero is very much highlighted by what the future of hybrid work looks like and what the future of commercial real estate looks like.”

Pre-CoWorkr, R-Zero’s flagship product was a UVC light called Arc — a rectangular light that can be wheeled into an office space once janitorial staff leave the office. It also offered a product called Arc Air, an air filter that also uses UVC light to kill germs, and that could be used in occupied spaces. 

UVC lights had a brief moment of fame in mid-2020 for several reasons: they seemed like powerful ways to disinfect communal spaces, and there were certain incentives for companies to apply tech-based solutions to COVID-19. 

UVC lights have been used in hospitals for decades to sanitize surfaces like scanners, or to sanitize air when inserted into UV air ducts. Studies have shown it can inactivate flu viruses in the air. Limited evidence also noted that UVC can also inactivate SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses by destroying the virus’ outer protein coating. 

These lights were also used in real-life during the pandemic. The New York Metropolitan Transport Authority, for example, purchased $1 million worth of UVC lights to disinfect subway cars each evening. The CARES act passed in March 2020 was to allow companies and public sector institutions to use government loans to purchase cleaning services, including UV lights. 

Still, some consumer-facing lamps drew their fair share of criticism. For one, they can cause eye injuries or burns if people are exposed to them for a long period of time. One review of UVC disinfection (notably, written by two scientists with ties to a UVC disinfection company) offered a blunt assessment noting that “nonscientific performance claims” were “widespread” in the nascent industry. 

For its part, R-Zero’s Arc does have third-party testing to its name — it was shown to reduce 99.99% of two viruses: a common cold coronavirus, and a surrogate for norovirus on surfaces. It was also 99.99% effective in killing off E. Coli and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). 

Despite back-and-forth over the utility of some UVC lights as disinfection technology, some analysts suggest this industry isn’t going anywhere (for one, LG has entered the UV-based cleaning space). Tim Mulrooney, a commercial services equities analyst for William Blair, told The Washington Post that we’re living through a “paradigm shift” in how people think about hygiene. 

Polling from 2020 suggests that cleaning procedures were top of mind for employees and customers alike. Of 3,000 people surveyed by Deloitte, 64% of employees said that regular cleaning of shared spaces was important to them and 62% of customers wanted surfaces cleaned after every interaction. (This is despite evidence that surfaces aren’t thought to be a way that COVID-19 spreads.) 

At this point, it’s unclear how the rise of vaccines might impact perceptions of office cleanliness. But Morgan is betting that companies (and employees) are now more aware of the germs in our midst than they might have been pre-pandemic, and will be eager for ways to control their spread — that includes managing the flow of people within an office. 

For R-Zero that means moving beyond UVC disinfection to focus on occupancy management, with the acquisition of CoWorkr. 

Morgan calls CoWorkr’s sensors R-Zero’s “eyes and ears.” R-Zero plans to announce two UVC-based products that address air cleanliness in occupied spaces, and will use CoWorkr’s sensors to ensure “full automation.” 

For instance, CoWorker’s battery-powered thermal sensors allow employers to know which rooms in an office are being occupied. That information, he says, could help trigger the use of a UV-based air filter or other cleaning products. 

That information could also tell janitorial staff to clean the room more thoroughly that evening — or conversely, to forgo cleaning a room that hasn’t been touched all day. 

“What our customers are seeing is that they’re getting an immediate ROI. Our customers are reducing labor costs by 30-40%,” says Morgan. 

Overall, says Morgan, the company is bullish on the idea that people will still crave clean workspaces; perhaps due to some lingering “scar tissue” from the pandemic, he notes. 

“​​In almost 100% of cases, our customers are looking at this as a long term investment,” Morgan adds. 

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/07/20/biosafety-startup-r-zero-acquires-coworkr-to-create-an-os-for-the-workplace/

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